Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Jeremy tells me that he learned in Dan Brown's book The Lost Symbol that the word sincere comes from the two word phrase without wax. The phrase, according to Brown, originates from the fact that sculptors, back in Roman times, would cover imperfections in their work by filling the cracks with wax. A true, honest sculptor would only sell sculptures without wax. In The Lost Symbol, the main character, Robert Langdon, remembers learning this etymology while reading what he calls a mediocre thriller. Jeremy, as it turns out, had read the same mediocre thriller. It was Dan Brown's Digital Fortress
Dan Brown was clever there, preventing anyone who noticed the duplication from accusing him of repeating himself. He was not, it would appear, clever when researching the origin of the word. I find it's usually the case that if an etymology seems that perfect, it's probably fake. And the Online Etymology Dictionary agrees, telling us that the phrase is from the Latin sincerus which means pure or sound. This, the Dictionary goes on to explain, is probably from sin, meaning one, and crescere, meaning grow, so that the expression originally meant out of one growth, referring to something that wasn't hybridized or mixed in with something else.
I'm not sure whether I plan to tell Jeremy this. It's a weird thing, not knowing whether to burst someone's bubble. In my etymological travels, I've found out quite a few of the more entertaining phrase origins aren't true. "Cat's out of the bag" doesn't refer to a ship captain keeping his cat o' nine tails in a bag (something I read about in a mediocre blog post once). In same said mediocre blog, I learned that "mind your own beeswax" doesn't, as myth claims, refer to the fact that women used to use beeswax as foundation. The phrase "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" has nothing to do with the fact that entire families in the 16th century used to wash using only one tub of water and they always washed the babies last and thus the babies could often be lost and then tossed out with the bathwater (I mean, really?). 
Once, I told somebody that I'd learned on NPR that "dead ringer" comes from the fact that in olden times, they'd tie a string around the wrist of people in graves and then tie the string to a bell. Then if the not-dead-yet individual moved, the bell would ring and so people who looked exactly like someone else would be "dead ringers" because... wow, this is seeming less and less plausible as I write it. I mean, I'd heard it on NPR. I'd read it on a placard at a museum. I'd even heard it on that great repository of truth, the Internet. I don't remember who I told this to, but they burst my bubble and told me my story was untrue. And I felt really foolish. And I think I thought the person who told me a little rude - although would it have been more rude to let me go on telling people wrong things? It's kind of like the classic quandary over whether or not to tell someone they've got a booger hanging out of their nose.
Etiquette tells us that when someone's got a booger hanging out of their nose, the polite thing to do is to inform the boogerer discretely. Probably by doing the old quiet voiced "you got something..." trailing off, and then making a gesture toward the nose that the hearer almost never seems to interpret correctly. And then there's the whole "my right or your right" thing... none of which helps us determine how to burst someone's etymological bubble. I generally go with a gentle shake of the head and the understated "Snopes it."
Man, I love Snopes.
This sculpture is both without wax and an epic win. It's from a
Canton art gallery, and I can't remember which one. 

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